Project Wrap Up – Understanding News

Six weeks ago I started a project: Understand the news better.

Was I able to overcome the challenge of comprehending stories that spanned diverse topics, contained specialized vocabulary, were written for advanced readers, and often covered depressing subject matter?


By Stefano Corso – Image Source


The answer: Yes! The project was a success!

Highlights of the Process

I studied in two three-week phases.

For the first three weeks, my routine consisted of:

  • Listening to 45 minutes of news a day, from several news sources
  • Transcribing a 150- to 250-word article
  • Reading one article a day “intensely”
  • Learning 10 to 15 new words a day and drilling them
  • Reading several news articles “extensively”

For the last three weeks, I made some adjustments, including:

  • Cutting my free listening down to 30 minutes a day
  • Gisting about five news articles a day
  • Stopping intensive reading and stopped learning new vocab
  • Studying a German college textbook
  • Reading news articles for 15 to 20 minutes a day


My goal was purposely vague: To feel more “comfortable” with the news.

With that goal in mind, I started seeing results within the first couple weeks. Something a lot of us forget–myself included–is how hard it is to enter a conversation when you don’t know what people are talking about. I’m a native English speaker, but if I were to turn on a soap opera like “Days of Our Lives” right now, I’d be completely lost.

Me: “Who’s Kayla? What motorcycle crash? Why is that guy wearing an eye patch? Why is that woman so mad?”

Other people in the room: “Shh.”

It wasn’t that different when it came to German news. Before, when I tried to listen to the news, I didn’t know a lot about Pegida or the Greece debt crisis, so I didn’t follow what was going on. I had assumed it was simply a matter of not having the German, but I don’t think that was the case; as soon as I caught up on the stories, I was able to follow along, even if I didn’t catch every word.

Okay, if I weren’t a language blogger, being “comfortable” would be good enough for me to call the project a success. But that’s a little lame since I know you guys would probably like something a hair more objective.

So I gave myself a mini-test on the first five short Newsticker articles I found at the website Bild that weren’t excessively sad or tragic. Then I read them and determined:

  • I understood two of the articles word for word.
  • I could get the main idea and gist of all five articles.
  • I identified the main idea of three out of five articles from the headline alone; for two articles I had to read the article itself to grasp the idea.
  • I knew 411 out of 425 vocabulary words–97% of the words.

Here’s what my ReadLang page looked like with the text of that test, with the words I didn’t know defined and marked up:


I also gave myself a final transcription test from one of the only non-sad articles from this day of slow German news: a story about a possible vaccine against Ebola. Here’s what it looked like:


I had a few mistakes, but all in all I think I did decent. The article had some stuff I had never seen before, like the German spelling of Gabon (“Gabun”) and the word for preparation/product/specimen (“PrΓ€parat”). And I made a stupid mistake mixing up “das” with “dass.” But all in all I handled a C1-level article with light medical terminology pretty well.


Okay, I’m obviously not a German media expert now, and it’s difficult to quantify exactly how much better I got. But I can tell I made real improvement in six weeks.

I’m going to go back and work with different texts again, such as books and sitcoms. The great thing is that I can work news into my overall routine. Just like my dad used to sit at the breakfast table reading the newspaper, I can pull up Der Spiegel on my phone and browse the news while I’m eating my Cheerios.

Putting in this six weeks of effort has allowed me to make news a part of my day, and it can be worked into any routine I do pretty seamlessly now.

If you’re looking to try a news-based routine yourself, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • There’s no shame in watching or reading easy news. In fact, sometimes I’d start the day with kids news to get familiar with the stories, and then when I listed to grown-up news later, I had no difficulty following along.
  • If you’re not currently understanding the news at all, one possible reason is that you’re just not familiar with the subjects being discussed. Watch and read the news for a couple days, looking up the words you don’t know, and you might be surprised at how much you’ll then be able to understand.
  • Transcription is obviously a good test of your spelling, but it’s also a great way to identify issues with grammar. If you see recurring grammar-based mistakes in your transcriptions, then you know exactly what you have to review.

Also, a couple people have made the very valid point that news is often depressing and sad. With some of the awful news coming out of Germany lately, I knew exactly what they were talking about.

I do think the media tends to cherry pick the most sensational, most tragic, and most horrific stories because those get people’s attention. And the media also tends to wallow, milking all the emotion out of a story.

But at the same time, this project made me realize I can’t cover my ears and shut my eyes. If I’m trying to learn a culture, I have to know its stories–both good and bad, both happy and sad. To know the people, I have to know what they’re talking about at the water cooler and what’s on their minds.

Now I feel like I can do that better.

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    I’m glad about such progress. German is notorious for being a fast-paced language, and the anchorpeople are specifically trained on tongue-twisters. Being such an intensive routine for so much time, it would be a miracle to bring nothing.
    Now let me get to shameless self-promotion ™.
    I wonder: if I start doing missions on my blog, will it have results?
    I have an idea (to learn all the language simultaneously and log it), but may not do it without an audience.

    • Ron G.

      I know that feeling too. It took me about six months before I got *any* traffic, and now after two years I’m just starting to get interaction from fine readers such as yourself.

      I don’t know what takes longer–to build a blog or to learn a language. Actually, I do know–it’s building a blog.

      You’ve mentioned Benny Lewis in previous comments. When planning a project log, I don’t think you can go wrong looking at how he structures his posts. I veer from the way he does his projects, for various reasons (including just not wanting to jack his swagger too much).

      But one thing I noticed he does is keep his missions short. Readers in general have a relatively short attention span. I have long, year-long projects sometimes, and some people stick with me for the long haul, but I’ve realized I’m putting a strain on our blogger/reader relationship.

      lol…so my point is, if you learn all the languages, figure out a way to keep the missions short. learn all the languages to A1 level in 3 months. build a small audience, who will be curious about how you learn all the languages to A2 level in 6 months. and so on.

      That’s my two cents. Let me know when you post and I’ll definitely share!

      • Roman Shinkarenko

        First: missions I talk about will concern my current languages (Polish, Serbian, Bulgarian). I was asking: in your opinion, will doing these missions discipline me in some way (’cause right now I’m a model slacker)?
        Second: learning all the tongues will be not about timed missions but an ongoing process (after all, life is short, and languages spoken by people on SharedTalk are plenty). For example: Finnish post, Portuguese post, French post, Finnish again.

        Also , by “without an audience” I meant zero, nil. Just one person would be enough.

        Thank you for such a long and caring reply.

        • Ron G.

          Ahh, okay, I get it now.

          Well, I’ll read it. I’ll put your blog into my Feedly page now. So there’s one reader. hahaha

          If anyone else wants to read Roman’s blog, it’s:

          Um…blogging your progress might discipline you, it might not. It helps me stay on track because I’m making my attempts public and I don’t particularly want to fall on my face. If you’re similarly motivated, then yes.

          Here’s the tricky thing I discovered about language blogging, and it’s not something I’ve personally mastered either. With language learning, it’s all about your own personal language development. With blogging, it’s about your readers’ development. Even when I’m talking about myself, I try (not always successfully) to give something readers can be inspired by or that they can learn from.

          With your posts about your ongoing process, as long as you find a way to bring it back to the reader somehow, I think you’ll build an audience, which will help you stay motivated, and which I think will end up helping your language learning in the long run. Connection is a powerful motivator.

          • Roman Shinkarenko

            Just wanted to say that I like how this blog is a mini-community. You, me, Natalie, Jorge (sorry to those not mentioned, I simply haven’t disqus’d with you enough); it’s like a social network.
            That’s why I dislike blogs that move their commenting sections to Facebook (it’s a trend now).

  • Agnieszka Karch

    Well done on your progress Ron! It’s an important point you make about understanding the context of the events that are being discussed. Understanding a news story about an isolated event (e.g. somebody winning a prize, etc.) is so much easier than following one about a political intrigue (e.g. something to do with national elections). It could help to focus on isolated events first and then move on to more complicated topics once you can understand the general context of the country the news are coming from. Another way of approaching this, which is something that I’m doing with Spanish, is always looking into the same specific topic, e.g. news relating to the state education system.

    • Ron G.

      Thank you! You’re absolutely right, and that’s a great observation. I’ve always had an interest in news, and had to study news as part of my translators’ course, but doing it on my own like this has really made me pay attention to the narratives.

      Excellent tip about sticking to the same topic. It’s like an organic form of spaced repetition. Could definitely see that working.

    • Roman Shinkarenko

      On the other hand, news is not the kind of soap opera to get cancelled, unlike “Days of Our Lives”. Another distinct advantage is less stupid foreigners (I keep gettin’ chills when I think how many Evil Russians with a cranberry, as tropers say, accent there were during the eighties).

  • Phil

    Nice work, Ron! That’s major progress, especially in such a short period of time, and even more impressive because you have other responsibilities that occupy your time. Your posts always motivate me to redouble my own efforts, even though I’m dispersing my time and energy over multiple languages and not concentrating on one the way you are doing.

    Someone has been uploading the texts from Langsam Gesprochene Nachrichten in Duolingo’s Immersion, so I’ve been hacking away at those the last week or two. It’s a fast way to get some exposure to the news, though certainly not as challenging as transcribing.

    Keep up the great work and keep writing these posts. I’ve been studying languages for a long time, and I can honestly say that your blog and your ebook are among the most helpful, comprehensive and practical resources that I’ve ever encountered.

    • Ron G.

      Hi, Phil! Thanks! I was a little surprised at the quick progress myself, honestly. I kind of don’t know what to make of it, because I feel like I was struggling with news and then just turned the corner on this project.

      I really appreciate the compliment–especially coming from an experienced, accomplished language learner such as yourself. Means a lot to me.

  • Natalie

    Yay! I remember when you started this project. I can’t believe it’s over already. It seems like it was a success, plus you’ve discovered the joys of reading foreign language news. πŸ˜‰

    • Ron G.

      It did seem fast. I had to check the calendar. lol

      • sundasAli

        Hi Ron G I have learning german language last 7 weeks but I cannot understand because I think it’s a very hard language …I want to applying for family visa family reunion. .thts y it’s very necessary …Please help me how can I learn german language please thank you so much. .,,

  • Stefan Malic

    Impressive work Ron. I admire your discipline more than I admire your result πŸ˜€ coming from my point of view, it’s definitely a compliment πŸ˜€